For close to a decade, Chris John had held onto the WBA featherweight title, banking away title defenses against relatively unknown opposition while creeping ever closer to the mystical 49-0 unbeaten champion streak of Rocky Marciano.
The closest John will ever come to matching that mark is 48-0-3, however, as his long unbeaten streak came to a close on the stool, following the sixth round of his brawl with South African Simpiwe Vetyeka in Northbridge, Australia.
John (48-1-3, 22 knockouts) remained in his corner after being battered in Rounds 5 and 6, the latter of which included a knockdown.
The 34-year-old Indonesian lived dangerously throughout the bout, swinging wildly without using his jab, despite having a clear reach and height advantage over Vetyeka.
John’s sloppy defense came back to haunt him in Round 5, as a sharp counter right hand was followed up by a barrage that seemed to stun him. Twice John would hit the canvas in that round in what appeared to be knockdowns, only to have WBA referee Gustavo Padilla rule them slips or pushdowns.
Still, John appeared to be dazed by the assault and was vulnerable when Round 6 began. Another counter right to the temple dropped him again, but the referee once more ruled it a slip.
John stood up on unsteady legs, and as Vetyeka took his measure with a double jab followed by a right hand, John fell forward onto his knees for what was ruled the first knockdown of the fight.
John once again stood up and was saved by the bell. He wobbled back to his corner on unsteady legs, where he would remain in resignation.
Vetyeka’s victory comes less than 24 hours after former South African president Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. A jubilant Vetyeka (26-2, 16 KOs) dedicated the fight to the late anti-appartheid activist.
“I dedicate this fight to the former president of South Africa, Mr. Nelson ‘Mandiba’ Mandela. I won this title for him,” said Vetyeka.
Vetyeka, who just last year lost a split decision to a fighter with a 14-9-2 record in an eight-round bout, had also lost a decision to Hozumi Hasegawa in 2007 in a vie for the WBC junior featherweight title.
John (48-1-3, 22 KOs) had registered victories over Juan Manuel Marquez, Rocky Juarez and Derrick Gainer, but seemed content in recent years to add wins to his record in Asia and Australia, as potential fights with Yuriorkis Gamboa, Juan Manuel Lopez and others passed him by.
John’s defeat is just the latest in a long string of upset losses that befall fighters who are on the cusp of matching the heavyweight great Marciano’s record. Last week, former IBF lightweight titleholder Paul Spadafora saw his unbeaten record spoiled at 48-0-1 when Johan Perez beat him by majority decision.
Most famously, then-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes was upset by light heavyweight kingpin Michael Spinks in 1985 after a long build-up centered attention on Marciano’s record.
The John-Vetyeka bout appeared to be in jeopardy earlier this week when former world titleholder Lovemore N’Dou threatened to interfere with the fight, claiming he had a managerial contract with Vetyeka and that the fight was made without his permission.
South African news outlet DispatchOnline reports that the boxing regulatory board in South Africa dismissed N’Dou’s claims, stating that only managerial contracts signed in front of the commission are valid.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.